Backpacking meals are light, easy to pack, long-lasting, and simple to make with just boiling water. And they’re getting better all the time.
If you’re a backcountry nut like I am, you’ve certainly experienced moments where freeze-dried meals didn’t live up to the surroundings. I still carry around packets of Taco Bell Fire Sauce and vials of salt and pepper on the trail.
But with foodies holding higher standards around what should go into their mouths, the trickle-down of what should go into their backpacks follows. Lately, I find myself needing my extras less and less.
The ol’ faithfuls like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry still reign in some areas. But companies like Good To-Go, Heather’s Choice, and Peak Refuel are catching up. And that hardly begins to cover some of the more niche companies specializing in paleo, keto, and vegan offerings.
An outstanding new choice in 2021 is Pinnacle Foods out of Missoula, MT. Truly, every meal I tried from them could be on this list and with much aplomb. But just read the names of their offerings and you’ll see why. From Sticky Teriyaki Chicken with Garlic Asparagus and Coconut Rice to Jalapeno Cheddar Biscuits & Herbed Sausage Gravy, there’s not a misstep in the bunch.
I compiled some fan favorites, and I based these off on my own experiences and user reviews. Here are 12 meals to stock up on for the coming season — or, if you’re a prepper, the coming apocalypse. Whatever way things shake out, these meals are A-OK.
GF = gluten-free
DF = dairy-free
V = vegan
Veg = vegetarian
Backpacking Meals People Love
The most beloved of Heather’s five flavors of buckwheat breakfasts, the Strawberry Vanilla ($7-40) option is said to be a bit tart and not too sweet. I like that these meals are cognizant of many folks’ dietary needs and they’re not overwhelmed with sugar and sodium.
I hate to say that Mountain House kinda has the eggy breakfast side of camping cornered, but I’m personally obsessed with every egg-based breakfast in their arsenal. The pro packs of eggs and bacon are super light and just the right size for breakfast.
But my favorite — and another fan favorite — is this breakfast hash ($10). Chiles, shredded beef, beans, taters, and eggs! It’s so good, and I always eat my breakfast and have enough for lunch. Win-win.
Another hearty breakfast option that’s mindful of diet is this meal from Backpackers Pantry ($7). Ingredients are all organic and natural; there are no weird, difficult-to-pronounce chemicals listed.
And one reviewer remarked that this meal is “hella tasty” — a phrase you rarely see in these freeze-dried parts.
Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy (Sorry, folks)
For the calorically indulgent and dietarily unrestricted, this ($8) is one of the most popular backpacking meals of all time.
One reviewer said, “After opening the pouch, I could have sworn someone dumped my mom’s biscuits and gravy in place of the once crouton-looking mound. Absolutely delicious.”
Must we go on? No, I don’t think so.
Lunch & Dinner
Perhaps one of the best dinners I’ve had from a bag, Pinnacle Foods (the 2021 standout) tops my personal list with their herb roasted chicken and white cheddar dumplings ($15).
I’d eat this every night without a prob. It’s comfort in a bowl. A mix of marinated chicken, delicious dumplings, green beans, carrots, and parsley in a fabulous sauce, and you pretty much forget you’re eating a backpacking meal. You pay a bit more, but it’s worth it.
In the timeless words of Tom Haverford, treat yourself.
Good To-Go Thai Curry (GF, DF)
Just look at her face. That’s not even acting. I know, because this is my favorite Good To-Go meal, and they’re all pretty dang OK.
The Thai Curry ($10) is simply a standout. It looks terrible after it’s absorbed the water, but don’t be dismayed. This is one of the few meals I don’t add anything to once it’s hot and ready for action, and it’s a hunting camp go-to after a long day on the mountain.
The first time I ate this ($8) was fireside, and we hadn’t even hiked yet. I made my camping partner try it because I was so blown away by how good it was. My new favorite backpacking dinner is creamy, sausagey, delicious, cheesy goodness.
Diet be damned, this is worth the full leap into dairy, gluten, and meaty excellence.
Wild Zora Paleo Meals Chicken Caldera Curry (GF, DF, Paleo)
The clear favorite among the paleo options, this meat-eaters’ curry ($13) is a pile of meat, veggies, spices, and pineapple. That’s it.
It’s described both as “fabulous” and “the best backpacking meal I’ve had.” However, this is another that folks suggest waiting a bit more time for the meal to get fully rehydrated.
The Backpacker’s Pantry Louisiana Red Beans and Rice ($6) is another fan favorite — so much so that it’s Amazon’s Choice! Vegans love it, and so does everyone else. Tips include adding a little less water and letting it sit for an extra 5-10 minutes to allow the beans to fully rehydrate.
I’m loving the price tag as well, especially for long-distance backpackers. And I look forward to trying it out.
Patagonia Provisions Organic Black Bean Soup (DF, GF, V)
If you thought Patagonia only made puffies and pants, prepare to be surprised. Patagonia Provisions ($7) aims at creating a sustainable food chain while providing affordable options for the trail-savvy.
And this black bean soup is the top-reviewed among its backpacking food options, and diners describe it as both “hearty” and “tasty.”
Trailtopia Sweet Potato Chili Mac With Hemp Seed Protein
Trailtopia got extra creative with its entreé backpacking meals. The Sweet Potato Chili Mac ($11) rehydrates amazingly well, serves two, and is chock full of elbow mac noodles, beans, onions, and chunks of sweet potato. Our favorite part of this meal? It’s the homemade spicy chili sauce and its 5-year shelf life for us.
Pro tip from our staff: pairs great with grilled tortillas or chips. There’s also a beef version for meat lovers.
Snacks & Dessert
Heather’s Choice Packaroons (GF, DF, V): for 8
You could buy these Packaroons individually. But, once you try one, you’re gonna want to try them all. These are not only great for the trail, but they can stand in for an on-the-run breakfast grab or a stash of office food supplies. The lavender is my absolute favorite.
At $2.50, the joy of these sweet treats is an easy spend. And these are great for a day trip or a backpacking trip. You will love them.
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As a child of Ohio, I was a frequent field-tripper to the Neil Armstrong Museum, where we would all get astronaut ice cream sandwiches.
Neil Armstrong is cool and all, but those ice cream sandwiches were legendary. And thanks to Backpacker’s Pantry ($4) and NASA, I can now take them backpacking. They’re so good, you guys. And the sentimental soul within is excited each time I have one of these in my pack.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose Your Backpacking Meal
When laying out gear for your next backpacking adventure, the prospect of planning your food intake can feel complex and daunting. This is where backpacking-specific food offers some relief and lots of time-saving convenience.
Instead of packing carefully measured volumes of specific ingredients to make a bunch of meals from scratch, backpacking meals come in neat little packages that are easy to lay out and visualize as your plan your trip’s meal schedule.
However, dietary preferences are very individualized, and everything from taste to ingredients to ideal serving size varies from person to person. When selecting backpacking meals for your upcoming adventure, try to lean heavily on what you already know about your personal food preferences.
While there are plenty of creative and inspired backpacking meals available today, choose the options that align with your lifestyle and sound appealing. Maybe you prefer low-sodium foods, are lactose intolerant, or maybe you just really dislike black beans. Whatever your preferences are, honor them as you begin to purchase meals.
After a long and active day out, you don’t want to find yourself stuck with a meal that isn’t exciting and satisfying for you. Go with what you know.
Cooking Method: Pot or Pouch?
There are a few distinct categories of backpacking meals that are defined by the cooking method. Most backpacking meals are dehydrated or freeze-dried and must be invigorated with hot water before consumption.
While many options can simply be hydrated in their own packaging, others have to be poured into a pot and actively stirred. An obvious difference between these two methods is that the pot-reliant options require you to dirty a dish at mealtime. For those who wish to avoid this, or for the ultralight and cookware-averse crowd, cook-in-pouch meals are the better choice.
A third category of backpacking meal requires no hot water hydration at all. These meals are cooked and ready to eat as is, and all you have to do is simply open the pouch and dig in. However, because these options are not dehydrated before packaging, they tend to be heavy.
Caloric Density & Weight
Speaking of weight, consider how much your meals weigh versus how many calories they offer. While we aren’t going to suggest an exact number of calories you should be consuming during backpacking trips, we do recommend ensuring the meals you purchase offer enough calories to sustain you throughout the strenuous demands of backpacking trips.
Generally, you’ll consume more calories per day while backpacking than you do on an average day at home. Before your trip begins, it may be a good idea to try a few backpacking meals and experience the actual size of the servings and how full they make you feel.
Remember that when you locate the calorie number on the back of your food pouch, that number refers to the calories in a single serving. Many backpacking meals contain multiple servings, so don’t assume one individual pouch is meant to be one meal for one person.
Food is always going to make up a major portion of the total weight you’re lugging around in your pack. Ideally, you’re maximizing the amount and quality of the food that you bring while minimizing the weight you’ll have to carry.
As you consider which meals to buy, think about the ratio between weight and calories. There’s a lot of variation in this ratio between different meal options and meal manufacturers. Over a multiday trip, weight adds up fast. Plenty of calories and a manageable total pack weight are your goals.
For meals that require water in their “cooking” process, plan ahead to ensure you’ll have access to enough water to hydrate your pouches at mealtime. Will you be carrying some or all of your water on this trip? Is there access to water along the way? If you’ll have access to a natural water source, do you have a reliable method of treating your water before using it for meals? If done properly, boiling water can be an effective method of disinfecting water before using it for meals.
If you’ll be carrying your water, which will make it a very cherished commodity, it may be wise to consider meals that don’t require hydration before cooking. That way, you can focus your water allotment on your drinking needs.
These days, there are ever-improving backpacking meals available for those with dietary restrictions. Heather’s Choice and Patagonia Provisions, among others, make meals that accommodate eaters with all kinds of diets, from dairy-free to paleo to vegan and more.
Finally, refer to your trip’s budget before jumping in and buying all the meals that seem intriguing. Backpacking meals range in price quite a lot, and many backpackers are surprised to discover that some options cost nearly as much as brunch at a sit-down restaurant. Backpacking meals tend to cost between $5 and $15 per pouch.
What Food Should I Bring for a 2-Day Backpacking Trip?
Thanks to the common combination of long days and heavy packs while backpacking, you’re going to burn a ton of calories. Most backpackers will need to eat more food while out on a trip than they do on a normal day at home. Actual intake depends on the individual, but most people will need to eat between 2,500 and 5,000 calories per day.
Because backpacking meals come in breakfast, lunch, and dinner options, you could feasibly subsist on only backpacking meals and get plenty of calories each day. However, depending on your budget, you may want to supplement your backpacking meal pouches with other snacks and foods for easy and affordable grazing.
What Are the Best Backpacking Meals?
Companies like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry make lots of tried-and-true backpacking meal pouches. While these two sources represent the bigger names on the market, we also recommend products from other companies like Good To-Go and AlpineAire.
The best backpacking meal is the one that tastes great and fits your dietary and monetary needs. You want your meals to add satisfaction to your life after a full day on the trail.
How Can I Eat Healthy While Backpacking?
Many backpacking meal companies now make products that accommodate a wide spectrum of dietary restrictions and preferences.
If you’re seeking healthy meals with fewer additives and preservatives, companies like Heather’s Choice and Wild Zora Paleo Meals make quality offerings. Check the ingredients of potential meals before you purchase. Whether you’re vegan, paleo, or are simply health-conscious, now’s a good time to be alive as a consumer of backpacking meals.
Does Anyone Make Keto Backpacking Meals?
There are a few options out there to meet the needs of ketogenic folks. Next Mile Meals specializes in keto backpacking meals.
Have a favorite backpacking meal? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll check it out for future updates to this article.